A New Transportation Secretary to Push an Old Obama Favorite: Infrastructure Spending

Democratic Charlotte Mayor Anthony Foxx has received President Barack Obama’s nomination to be the next Transportation secretary on the heels of Congress passing hurried legislation to give the Federal Aviation Administration the authority to transfer up to $253 million of its budget for operations and staffing.

“He’s got the respect of his peers, mayors and governors all across the country,” Obama said yesterday in nominating Foxx to replace retiring Secretary Ray LaHood. “And as a consequence, I think that he’s going to be extraordinarily effective. One of the things that Ray taught me in watching him do his job is that establishing personal relationships with mayors and governors and county executives makes all the difference in the world, because transportation is one of those things that -- it’s happening on the ground.”

If confirmed, Foxx will take over an agency that has been ground zero for budget debates lately with air traffic delays and a central focal point of Obama’s plans for “investment spending.”

Jay Carney, White House press secretary, said Friday the president would sign the FAA deal, but described the temporary fix as a “Band-Aid solution.”

The FAA reported commercial airline delays due to staffing issues last week, as nearly 4,000 of its employees — including air traffic controllers — began to undergo mandatory furloughs without pay. The government-imposed cuts in the FAA’s budget were part of a larger agency-wide effort to cut $1.2 trillion from federal deficits over 10 years, known as sequestration.

“The funding associated with the furloughs at the FAA is I think $253 million,” Carney said. “That’s one-half of 1 percent — one-half of 1 percent of the sequester.” He also said the sequester “was written in a way never to become law, written by and agreed to by both parties so that it would never become law because it would have these effects. It was designed to be terrible and onerous. And lo and behold, whether it was a tactical political victory for the tea party or not to embrace it, these effects are happening.”

“Step back and look at the big picture and you still see the CBO (Congressional Budget Office) estimate of 750,000 jobs that would be lost if the sequester were to run its full course, the fully half a percentage point of GDP that would be cut from our growth,” Carney added.

As with all agencies, sequestration had the Department of Transportation (DOT) preparing for the worst.

In a letter from DOT Deputy Secretary John Porcari to his agency’s staff in February — before the sequester deadline — he too warned of possible temporary furloughs for his agency’s employees.

"We will use any and all flexibilities we have to protect our core operations and mission,” the letter said. “However, our ability to do so will be limited by the rigid nature of the cuts imposed by Congress. As a result, we are closely examining contracts, grants and other forms of expenditures across the department to determine where we can reduce costs. In many cases, this could mean making cuts to vital programs or curtailing spending on contracts."

While the furloughs and cuts attempt to compensate for the country’s deteriorating budget, America’s infrastructure also shares a similar state.

According to the American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE), one in nine of the nation’s bridges are rated as structurally deficient, while the average age of the nation’s 607,380 bridges is currently 42 years. Thirty-two percent of America’s major roads are also in poor or mediocre condition.

ASCE’s 2013 Report Card for America’s Infrastructure — which evaluates the country’s aviation, bridges, inland waterways, ports, rail, roads, and transit — gave the country’s infrastructure a poor rating of “D+” for its cumulative grade.

ASCE’s report card cited an improvement in roadway conditions in the near term, as federal, state, and local capital investments increased to $91 billion annually, but roads still received a “D” rating. “While the nation has seen some improvements in pavement conditions due to a short surge of investment from the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, these were not sustained, long-term investments,” the report said.

In order to improve the nation’s infrastructure, ASCE says $3.6 trillion in infrastructure investment is needed by 2020. Obama’s proposed fiscal year 2014 budget calls for $3.77 trillion.

“While this proposal certainly is a step in the right direction to bolster investment levels in transportation, it’s critical that the administration put forth a clear road map with long-term funding solutions,” ASCE’s Leslie Nolen wrote in a blog post.

ASCE is not the only unsatisfied constituent calling for long-term, financially solvent solutions.

“After months of delay, President Obama proposed a budget that shows he’s out of new ideas,” said Republican National Committee Chairman Reince Priebus. “This is the same, warmed-over proposal that doesn’t address the nation’s pressing fiscal challenges – challenges that have gotten worse during his time in office. As we’ve seen before, this budget amounts to spending more money we don’t have and higher taxes and more debt to pay for the spending. And unlike the budget passed by House Republicans, this budget never balances – ever.”

“In this budget, he (Obama) claims $1.8 trillion of deficit reduction, but if you take out all of the budget gimmicks and the accounting tricks, it winnows down to a paltry $119 billion over a 10-year time frame,” said Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wis.). “To put that in perspective, the president is proposing we spend $46.5 trillion over the next decade for the federal government, and of that, he thinks he can have $119 billion dedicated to deficit reduction.”